Thursday, 22 March 2007

Water: Everyone’s Business

Today – World Water Day – should be an important day in everyone’s diaries. The Human Development Report 2006 and today’s press release by the African Development Bank explain why. One African out of three lacks access to safe drinking water supply, while one out of two lacks access to sanitation.

Water is increasingly seen by business as a core business issue, and rightly so. The business angle is profiled in today’s Financial Times Special Report, "Business and Water" and in a consultation report launched today by the International Business Leaders Forum. It was also the focus of a recent Diageo-supported event organised by the Foreign Policy Centre. Speaking at the event, the UK International Development Minister Gareth Thomas outlined the UK's own commitments in this area, while Norah Odwesso of Diageo Africa gave an example of what business is doing.

Companies such as SABMiller, Diageo and NestlĂ© are leading the way in what business should and can practically do. It’s about time others followed their example.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

International Business Forum (IBF) Turns to Africa

It is widely recognized that Africa needs more business investment for its development. Yet many companies regard investment in Africa as too risky an affair. In order to scale up investments that are not only profitable but that also contribute to Africa’s development, InWEnt together with the World Bank Institute recently held a conference on “The Business Challenge Africa”, looking at this issue. The conference report is out now and stresses the good opportunities that forward looking companies can seize by being part of a thriving African economy. The report is to be commended for the concrete examples it provides as case studies on how business has actually found ways to reach to the vast market at the bottom of the pyramid, as most recently discussed in World Bank’s The Next 4 Billion. The report also recognizes the significant role of the financial and knowledge bridges that can be built by the Diaspora and south-south economic relations (see the Silk Road).

What’s next? The 12th International Business Forum "Business Engagement for Governance" will take place 8-10 October in Washington D.C., and look at how business, together with its stakeholders, can shape a sound and stable business framework to scale up more investments and more business contributions to development. Participants will look at innovative ways for business engagement in reducing fraud and fighting corruption. Not an easy issue to tackle, but certainly one that needs the attention it will get from big players. Look for updates on the upcoming conference at

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Saying it with flowers just got complicated

Today – Mother’s Day in the UK – is one of the most lucrative days of the year for the country’s flower industry. Yet behind the expressions of love for mothers, and of joy by florists, other decidedly more negative emotions are stirring. And environmentalists are to blame.

Pressure groups – and more recently supermarkets – are urging customers to take into account the environmental cost of importing flowers – from say Kenya, the largest source of imported flowers into the UK after Holland – and instead buy local.

Not only is this message simplistic, it is also irresponsible. And it is about time we had a balanced, evidence-based, debate about it. Trade after all is one of the most important ways poor people around the world will be able to lift themselves out of poverty.

The fact is that the environmental costs of growing flowers in heated greenhouses in Northern Europe far outweigh those in sunny Kenya, even taking into account transport. According to research quoted by the Fairtrade Foundation, a flower grown in Kenya and flown to the UK emits 5 times less carbon than one that has been industrially hot-housed in the Netherlands. And according to a report by the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, most of the enviromental damage is caused by us driving to the supermarket to buy them. More generally, the carbon emissions associated with flying fruit and vegetables from Africa to the UK is less than one tenth of one per cent of all the UK’s carbon emissions.

Thankfully, a more sensible debate is beginning. Hilary Benn's speech to the Fairtrade Foundation provided a fresh and balanced perspective. The BBC and The Scotsman newspaper also both published last month good articles on the issues.

For now, next time you buy flowers from Kenya, be assured that on balance you are doing a good thing – for your mother and for the developing world.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Commission for Africa: Broken Promises?

Today is the two year anniversary of the Commission for Africa Report and Bob Geldof, the man who inspired it, is angry. Speaking to the BBC’s Radio 4 Programme, he has criticised European leaders for losing interest in Africa since the 2005 G8 agreement that drew on the Commission's work. Broken promises over Africa would "kill the poor" on that continent, he says.

The good news is that there are at least some reasons to be optimistic. Germany has placed Africa on the agenda for its 2007 G8 Presidency with a clear opportunity to encourage governments to deliver on previous promises. The Africa Progress Panel – the follow-up mechanism recommended by the Commission for Africa and long-argued for by the UK Government – is finally up and running, under the leadership of Kofi Annan, and is due to publish its first progress report imminently.

And perhaps most importantly, there has actually been some tangible progress in implementing the Commission’s key recommendations – including on those measures, such as infrastructure and investment climates, needed to stimulate growth and enterprise, the only long-term option for poverty reduction in Africa (see, for example, the latest update from the UK’s Department for International Development, and the reports from the Africa Partnership Forum).

Ultimately, it is up to each of us, individually and collectively, to ensure that the bold promises made two years ago are translated into lasting change for Africa and its people. If promises are broken, we’ll all be partly to blame.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

An investment to last generations: gender balance

Today is International Women’s Day and is a good occasion to remind ourselves of poverty’s feminine face as noted in a recent article by the Economist. It is estimated that 70% of the world's poor are women. According to the UNFPA, worldwide, women on average earn slightly more than 50 per cent of what men are earning. Gender has been an important component in many development efforts, so much so that it is one of the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

According to the 2006 MDG report, women represent an increasing share of the world’s labour force – over a third in all regions except Southern and Western Asia and Northern Africa. What makes gender particularly important is that gender inequality is one of the key issues that contribute to intergenerational poverty.

The issue is not one that is specific to poorer countries or for that matter to the poor. According to the UK Equal Opportunities Commission women are woefully underrepresented in the both private and public sectors—with only 117 among the 1130 directors in FTSE 100 boardrooms. US Census Bureau estimates that 14.1% of women in America live in poverty, compared with 11.1% of men.

Socio-cultural attitudes, employment policies, balancing work and family responsibilities are some of the many issues that impact gender inequality and areas in which the private sector can make a difference—one workplace at a time—impacting generations.

For more information on country specific progress on gender issues you can get data from World Bank’s gender database.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Ghana 50th

I love Ghana and I love Ghanaians. They are engaging and articulate. My company Unilever has had a long and happy history there and we are willing co-sponsors of their 50th anniversary reception being held in London tonight (6 March). Of almost all African countries, it is Ghana that seems to have best weathered the various rites of passage without losing the plot of what is best for its people at large. And, encouraged by its many resident donors, here it is setting the pace in terms of the African Peer Review Mechanism process and the World Bank lists of countries taking steps to improve their business climate.

And yet somehow if I were Ghana's line-manager, I think I would be tempted to put in something about operating a bit too much within its own comfort-zone. I am pleased that President Kufuor is getting a State Visit to Britain and that we will be invited to meet him chez HM The Queen. But I wouldn't want the form to be confused with the substance. I have been struck in my admittedly limited dealings with Ghana how the protocol seems to take precedence over the actual delivery. So when we were asked to help brand Ghana to the outside world, I was keen to see it linked to proof of real oomph in the engine.

As with all 50ths, a certain amount of self-congratulation is no doubt in order. But a sense of vision for the future and how it can help steer the wider West African region get there would be very welcome as well.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Doing good by doing good business

SABMiller – the world’s second largest brewer, and one of the first African-originated companies to emerge as a global business – announced today plans to invest $7.5m (£3.8m) to scale up its Eagle Lager project in Uganda. Eagle has emerged as the second largest pan-African brand, while benefiting over 10,000 small scale farmers in Uganda and Zambia that supply the sorghum from which it is brewed.

When I visited the farmers last June, their enthusiasm was infectious. Yet what struck me most was that they, unknowingly, have found themselves at the heart of a distracting, yet heated, international debate about the role of business in international development: about whether the private sector is part of the solution to poverty reduction, or part of the problem.

The debate is distracting for two reasons. First, for the large part, the private sector is actually made up of small-scale entrepreneurs and family farms – much like those that supply Eagle. While the public emphasis is often on big business, it is in fact the poor who are the private sector: nine out of ten jobs in developing countries are in the private sector. So eliminating poverty is inextricably linked to boosting local private sector development and entrepreneurship.

Second, in the midst of the noise of NGO campaigning and defensive corporate communications, the most important linkages between larger businesses and poverty reduction are seldom studied and often missed. The focus – within the framework of “corporate social responsibility” – is often either on large companies doing good (in the form of philanthropy) or avoiding doing bad (in the form of signing up to one or another of the myriad of international codes).

The Eagle story is a powerful demonstration of one way in which – by engaging small enterprises in their value chains – businesses can do good by doing good business.